While rock ‘n’ roll bands have split-up and reformed for decades, the increased age of the genre means that the gap can be longer and longer. And while it is one thing for Cream to reunite for concerts, it is another for a long dormant group to return with new music. Sometimes, this can be great—Mission of Burma returned without missing a beat after two decades—and sometimes… well, not so much (witness the recent, rather limp release from the New York Dolls). Radio Birdman, the legendary Australian rockers who, like many before and since, made a small splash commercially and a big one artistically, have reunited and issued a sparkling new CD, Zeno Beach.
The key for Radio Birdman is that Zeno Beach retains the spirit—and more importantly the sound—of the band’s original run during the mid-1970s. The band’s original music (most easily available via the Sub Pop compilation, The Essential Radio Birdman) mixed the bluesy chug of the Stooges and early American heavy metal (their debut, Radios Appear, was named for a Blue Oyster Cult lyric) with the growing back-to-basics aesthetic that would eventually explode as punk rock.
The revised band—featuring a mix of originals (guitarists Deniz Tek and Chris Masuak, and vocalist Rob Younger) and a new rhythm section—announces their intent on the album opener, “We’ve Come So Far (To Be Here Today)”. Using this burst of energy, the band is able to fuel the first half of the album, making it sound like it was 1976 all over again. They follow it up with the boogie stomp of “You Just Make it Worse”, the punk-pop of “Connected”, and the electric ‘60s (think Revolver-era Beatles using Les Pauls) power of “Die Like April”. The band experiments with other styles, but they are at their best with their classic approach—a tough backbeat, a pulsing bass line, and a front line that both carries the melody and is willing to rock out (check out the classic garage attack of “Hungry Cannibals”, complete with a furious fuzzed-out guitar solo for a great example of this).
The journey also includes a few duds. Not awful tracks, but songs that don’t really stick in the mind the second the song is over. These come when the band gets a bit lazy in their rock ‘n’ roll attack. “Subterfuge” could have been drawn from one of a thousand rootsy rock albums of the last 25 years, while “The Brotherhood of Al Wazah” finds the band channeling the wrong bits of the early Blue Oyster Cult.
In the end, Zeno Beach is much more good than bad, fueled by a pure rock ‘n’ roll spirit that most modern bands can’t manage, don’t bother, or just don’t know about (being around for three decades does have its advantages). Yet this is more than a history lesson. Radio Birdman connected with something timeless back in the 1970s, and have the presence 30 years later to not muck about with that raw power. If you are tired of overproduced, arid albums or Pro-tooled perfection, Zeno Beach is a welcome return to the messy sonic glory and pure emotions that serve as the real engines of rock ‘n’ roll.